With their knowledge of metallurgy, mechanics and thermodynamics, mechanical engineers had to give shape to the industrial revolution in the Netherlands 150 years ago. This revolution only slowly gathered momentum, however, especially in comparison with England.
In England, half of the energy was produced by steam engines in 1830; this wasn’t the case in the Netherlands until fifty years later. After that, however, the industry experienced a rapid development – gas plants, water towers, small power plants, port facilities, railways and sewage systems were constructed around cities. Large steam installations were operated at sugar factories in West Brabant, dairies in the north and food industries in the cities of western Holland. Electricity companies grew rapidly and started constructing electricity networks in cities, which eventually expanded to cover the entire country. The production of electricity was also the domain of mechanical engineers back then.
Those engineers were trained at the Polytechnic School in Delft – the predecessor of TU Delft. It had been founded in 1842 as the Royal Academy to train civil engineers, and another programme was created in 1864, 150 years ago, to train mechanical engineers to be industrial pioneers.
The new mechanical engineering study programme was shaped by the efforts of ir. Adrien Huet. After graduating as a civil engineer five years previously, Huet went on educational trips to England, which was more industrially developed. Once he had returned to the Netherlands, the polemical Huet, who was a teacher at the Polytechnic School, fervently called for more practical experience and experiments in the engineering programme, and for more theoretical education in the vocational schools. As a result of what he had seen in England, he strove to transform the school culture into a workplace culture. As a lecturer, he was given the task of changing the existing education in mechanical engineering and the knowledge of tools. His initial accomplishments – eight students in two small classrooms on Westvest – were modest, to say the least.
As an outspoken educational reformer, Huet was not very popular among the other professors and was not appointed a full professor until 1896. When he died three years later at the age of 63, his loyal former students took the initiative to erect a monumental bench in Delft as a memorial to him. That semicircular bench is still standing there today.
From steam to electricity
Prof. Bendiks Jan Boersma of the Energy Technology department regards the transition from steam to electric power as the most important breakthrough. “One hundred and fifty years ago, everything ran on steam. There were steamships and steam locomotives, and even pile drivers were powered by steam until 1920. All factories had a central steam engine and motion transmission occurred by means of leather belts. Between 1930 and 1940, however, steam made way for electric power. In some cases steam engines were replaced by diesel and petrol engines. Electricity is now the mostimportant means of generating power and energy.”
The most important challenge is the transition to a sustainable energy supply. “There are many ideas about this and I’m sure the result will eventually be a combination of all of these ideas. You will be able to generate lot of cheap electricity from wind and the sun, but you will need to store the energy due to fluctuating production. We have to produce our own fuel and, given the existing infrastructure, I think that methane is the best choice for this.”
“You can say ‘Delft’ and ‘mechanics’ anywhere in the world, and the response will usually be: ‘Oh, Koiter!’”, says Prof. Fred van Keulen of the Precision and Microsystems Engineering department. Koiter published his PhD thesis (On the Stability of Elastic Equilibrium) soon after the end of the Second World War. The thesis was discovered and translated in the United States a decade later. It has been the standard for the stability of thin-walled systems such as submarines, aircraft, silos, rockets and microsystems ever since. Prof. Warner Koiter created the mathematical framework to describe that in a satisfactory way. A cabinet in the hallway is filled with his certificates and awards.
There are plenty of challenges for micro and nano engineering. “There must be a good description of materials at the nano level, nano phenomena must be translated to the macroscopic world and there is no shortage of tools for creating nanostructures. In short, there is plenty of work to do.”
Intelligent and sustainable
“A bit obvious” is what Prof. Gabriel Lodewijks (maritime and transport technology) thinks of his own answer. But if you consider what led to the most significant change and the greatest innovations, it would have to be information and communications technology (ICT). “As a designing tool, the computer has made new things possible. Hydrodynamics allows us to determine the behaviour of a ship in the design phase. We can also create virtual prototypes of grabs, for example, in order to observe how well they perform. Furthermore, communications protocols made the development of automated guided vehicles possible, like the ones used in container handling.
Lodewijks considers good stewardship to be the biggest challenge: “Everything we are currently developing is aimed at ensuring a sustainable future. For example, transporting containers in the harbour with autonomous electric ships instead of over roads. Or reducing the energy consumption of bulk transport by means of conveyor belts. We have already almost reduced that by half.”
Materials do not grow on trees
“The greatest breakthrough is the existence of the subject of Materials Science,” says Prof. Jilt Sietsma of the Materials Science and Engineering department. “In the fifties, people started to realise that materials do not grow on trees and that scientific research is required to understand and improve the properties of materials. A medieval blacksmith would place a red-hot sword in water in order to temper it. We now understand how that works, and we can make the material structures visible and control them.” The research initially focused on metals and later expanded to include plastics, ceramics and semiconductors.
The challenge for the future lies in sustainability, as hackneyed as that might sound. Materials are becoming scarce. Take zinc, for example. Zinc is indispensable for corrosion protection in cars and for tempering rubber tyres. In fifteen years, however, zinc will be depleted. In fact, many other raw materials will be depleted too. Recovery techniques and alternative materials are developed using materials science.
A circus of negotiations
“The advent of the computer is the most significant change in our field in that period”, says Prof. Hans Hellendoorn, Departmental Director of the Measurement and Control Technology department. The first control systems were mechanical. After the Second World War, electric control devices with resistors, condensers and coils for proportional, calculating and differential controls were developed. All those controls have now been incorporated in the computer and we can network with hundreds of control devices that communicate with each another. This is the case with traffic lights and signs above motorways, but also with the regulation of water levels. Control technology has become an automated circus of negotiations.”
“Controlling light is new for us. Take, for example, a movable mirror in a telescope that compensates for atmospheric fluctuations in real time, or a chip machine that compensates for the heat generated by the laser. We have to get used to the non-deterministic behaviour of photons, which behave according to the laws of probability, and that is a challenge.”
Nature as a model
“In biomechanics, we want to use our knowledge of nature to develop new mechanical principles”, says Prof. Jenny Dankelman, head of the department of Biomechanical Engineering. Developing walking robots, for example, requires a better understanding of how humans walk, while the tentacles of a squid can be used as a model for surgical tools. “We are currently trying to understand the stinger of a wasp, which can be up to ten centimetres in length and one tenth of a millimetre thick. And yet it doesn’t bend. Not even when it penetrates stiff materials. Once we understand why this is the case, we will be able to create extremely thin and controllable needles.”
How can we ensure that humans remain in control of mechanical systems? Take, for example, a reinforcing exoskeleton for patients that have difficulty walking. How can you ensure that people can still continue to literally feel what they are doing? According to Dankelman, the challenge lies in finding an optimal interaction between human beings and technical systems.